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Successful working mothers > Returning To Work > Career Break = Broken Career?

Career Break = Broken Career?

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

“It’s been over five years since I worked as an auditor. I haven’t kept up with people – can’t say I was sorry to see the back of my last firm! I want to work again now the twins are at school but I feel companies won’t look at me twice. What can I offer them?”

The challenges of returning to work after a career break of several years’ length affects several groups of people: stay at home mums like you, but also those who’ve had to care for elderly relatives, and even individuals who have taken time out to travel extensively or do volunteer work. But mums in particular seem to undervalue their work in the home and to think “I’m just a mum”.

It sounds as if you are not planning on returning to your old firm which makes your case a bit harder as you may be starting from scratch. However, that does not mean your career is broken.

Getting Back in Touch

You say you haven’t really kept in touch with people from work. Don’t despair! We advocate 3 routes to begin reconnecting with the working world. This is an important first step to start building your confidence.

  1. Begin to read articles and magazines in your professional area. The internet will give you access to abstracts or even whole articles for free, and major public libraries carry a wide range of periodicals. Whether you find that it’s business as usual in your industry or that things have changed fast, it should lift your confidence as you quickly become familiar with the names, developments and issues.
  2. Begin to network. Yes, it’s hard to find the time when you’re the one holding the household routine together but perhaps you could aim for one event every month. Experiment. See which events have the best mix of people for the type of roles you’re interested in and go armed with business cards printed up with your basic details. Let your contacts know the sort of work you’re after and think you’d be suited for. Many jobs, and especially part time ones, don’t tend to be formally advertised. Depending on where you are in New Zealand, you should be able to find several regular offline networking events that can be useful to you.
  3. Get busy on LinkedIn. Unlike Facebook and other social networking tools, this online networking site is focused on business. You may be surprised at how many of your former colleagues, clients and suppliers are listed. While the site and your contacts are unlikely to make your dream job land in your lap just like that, they will give you another means of reconnecting. Don’t be shy about sending an invitation to old contacts. And if they live or nearby, call them up and invite them for a coffee.

The Mum’s CV

A stay at home mum I know, who was an investment banker in her BC (Before Children) years, once told me she hates it at dinner parties when she’s asked what she does… and the answer that she’s at home with her sons brings the follow-up question, “Oh. Well what did you do before?” – as if being at home means she’s stagnating. If your dinner companions think that way, it’s easy to think that future employers will take the same view.

The reality is that many of them probably will to start with – but there is another perspective and you can use it to present yourself in the best possible light. It’s Unilever’s idea of the Mum’s CV.

Unilever was keen to attract more women back to work after career breaks. In 2002, Linda Emery, Unilever’s UK Diversity manager, championed the introduction of the Mum’s CV. This document lists skills that stay at home parents are likely to develop and use at home that will have real value on their return to the workplace.

Time Management and Prioritisation

  • Have you learnt to balance the needs of different individuals in the household (possibly allocating time to different children, partner, friends etc.)?
  • Have you had to meet non-negotiable deadlines (e.g. school pick-up times)?
  • Have you had to develop routines and prioritise tasks (e.g. learning how to get out of the house in the morning with a new baby; learning how to get out of the house with a new baby and get an older child to school and get the house clean and do the shopping and look after an elderly relative and walk the dog and the list could go on and on!)

Coaching and Listening

  • Have you tried to explain the ways of the world to a small child?
  • Have you listened to your child learning to read and tried to help them?
  • Have you coached patiently as your child tried to make a birthday card for her grandmother?
  • Have you acted as a listening ear for friends in distress and helped them see a way through their situation (or just supported them by listening)?

You may also draw some comfort from the words of experienced director, John Palmer. He acknowledges that when a woman who takes a career break returns to work, she will be at an immediate disadvantage to one who hasn’t left and to her male colleagues. But he goes on,

“My bet is that, within five years, the one who took a break to raise children will become more valuable because of the skills and experiences she gained as a mother. In some ways she’ll be even more valuable than those people who took a more single minded approach.”

John also talks about the value of becoming involved in community boards, school committees and so on. Not only does this give you more firepower for your CV, it lets you practise your skills. A stay at home mum who runs a school committee recently told me that after a year of this experience – with ‘real’ business people on her team – she realised that she still has her old project management skills. The difference is that she can now assert them with confidence.

Professional Training

You say you are an auditor, so yours is an industry that requires membership of a professional institution and maintaining proof of skills currency. You’ve probably kept your accounting qualifications up to date but if they have lapsed, it’s of course, important to get that back on track. For the benefit of professionals who may be reading this and contemplating a career break, remember that professional institutions increasingly allow membership deferrals in the case of career breaks. This helps smooth your costs.

Other industries, like information technology, seem to move forward at an alarming pace and readers in this field may fear their technical skills are out of date. Bear in mind that employers probably appreciate that new technical skills are easier to teach (especially to someone who has demonstrated capability in the past) than some other skills, like people management and effective communication.

Writing a Skills-Based CV

When you do get to the stage of writing your CV, think about framing it in terms of strengths and skills that you possess that an employer would be pleased to have. Think about times you have drawn on your strengths of – for example – common sense, emotional intelligence, and self motivation; and the instances in which you have had to rely on your skills of time management, communication and interpersonal skills. Your goal is to place the emphasis on what you can offer and what you have been spending your time developing, not on the precise time or place that you gained the strengths and skills. For a little more information on writing your CV

NOT a Broken Career

In summary, your career break doesn’t mean the end of your career. Your years as a mum will definitely not have been wasted from a professional point of view, and will have deepened what you can offer an employer. As an article in Unilever Today put it,

Bringing up children is the best learning and developmental experience ever invented!

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